People in Swindon yesterday became reluctant guinea pigs in the pilot study for the launch of the Mondex card, hailed as the start of the cashless society.
Mondex took NatWest, Midland, and BT five years to develop at a cost of "tens of millions of pounds". Holders can charge the card up with cash and then use it to pay for goods and services for a monthly fee of £1.50.
Its trial in Swindon will last a year with the fee waived for the first six months. However, few people in the town were welcoming the hoards of bankers bussed in to launch the card.
So far, just 1,000 of the 190,000 population have cards, although the target is 40,000. Of the 1,000 retailers, 720 have signed up-with the notable exception of Marks & Spencer and Shell garages. The main strain of resistance from local traders has been from hairdressers, few of which have signed up. As yet, the town's car parks and buses do not take it: just the sort of places where loose change is needed.
Yesterday, Swindon-which was chosen because it is seen as a perfect example of an average town "it's demographically perfect, not boring" a Mondex spokesman said-seemed more annoyed about the crowds of suits blocking the pedestrian precinct.
Local pensioner Harry Harphan said: "I don't see the point of it. My pension's pretty small and I don't mind carrying the cash around. I certainly wouldn't want to pay for it." His friend thought it was "a good idea but there's not much point in me having it: I'm just visiting from Australia". Offered a card with £5 cash logged on it, one local responded "not that bloody thing. I'm sick of hearing about it".
A local policeman admitted he had applied for a card "but I'm only going to keep it for the first six months when it's free". The only local who admitted to having a card was a busker. But he added: "I'm not taking it. I'm strictly cash only."
Derek Wanless, chief executive of NatWest said that the trial will last a year. If the trial is a success-and "I don't countenance failure", Mr Wanless said-Mondex will then go nationwide. He added that although Mondex should mean that holders will not need to go to a bank branch, in the short term it will not mean cuts in jobs or branches.